The ASU team is celebrating 20 years of mapping Mars with NASA’s Odyssey orbiter

The ASU team is celebrating 20 years of mapping Mars with NASA’s Odyssey orbiter

Press Release: Arizona State University
Published: Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Marking its 20th anniversary, NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter in 2001, the longest-lived spacecraft on the red planet, helped locate water ice, find landing sites and study mysterious lunar planets.

This spacecraft houses ASU’s thermal emission system or THEMIS. The camera measures surface temperature day and night, allowing scientists to determine which physical materials, such as stone, sand or dust, exist. His data reveal the presence of these materials based on how they heat up or cool down during a Martian day. The spacecraft also includes gamma-ray spectrometer detectors that measure the amount of various elements on the surface of Mars.

NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft was launched 20 years ago on April 7, 2001, making it the oldest spacecraft still operating on the red planet. Orbiter, named after Arthur C. Clarke’s classic science fiction novel “2001: A Space Odyssey” (he blessed its use before launch), was sent to map the composition of the Martian surface by providing a window into the past so scientists could compose how the planet evolved. But much more has been done than that, discovering water ice stocks, serving as a key communications link for other spacecraft and helping pave the way not only for safer landings but also for astronauts.

For the ASU THEMIS team, led by Regent Professor Philip Christensen of the ASU School of Earth and Space Research, two decades of data have led to complete global maps of Mars. These maps allowed scientists to map network valleys and craters; water ice map; spotted sandstone, volcanic rocks rich in iron and clay; and finally provide a deeper insight into the story of Mars.

“In the last 40 years, Mars has gone from a red dot in the sky to a world we’ve known almost as well as our own,” Christensen said. “Mars Odyssey and THEMIS played a major role in that transformation and it was a great privilege to be part of the exploration of Mars.”

The orbiter has sent more than a million images since it began orbiting Mars. Not only did these images and maps produced help missions figure out which parts of Mars they want to study up close, but they helped NASA decide where its missions on Mars would land – including the Perseverance rover, which touched on February 18, 2021.

The odyssey did such a thorough job of studying the surface of Mars that scientists began turning the THEMIS camera to capture unique views of the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos. In June 2020, the ASU team released three new views of Phobos, filming the moon as it moved away and emerged from Mars ’shadow. Studying thermophysics every month helps scientists determine the properties of materials on their surfaces, just as they did for the surface of Mars. Such information can give you a clue to the past: It is unclear whether the moons captured asteroids or pieces of Mars, which were carried off the surface by an ancient blow.

Future missions, such as the Martian Moon Exploration (MMX) of the Japan Space Agency, may try to land on these months. In the distant future, missions could create bases for astronauts. And if they do, they will rely on data from an orbiter who began his odyssey at the beginning of the millennium.

Top 5 scientific discoveries from THEMIS

With twenty years of data, there is a plethora of research related to THEMIS, but Christensen has his top five discoveries listed here in order. To read more about the discoveries, visit the ASU THEMIS website.

1. Mars has large expanses of exposed substrates: THEMIS results show that winds have cleared many areas of Martian substrates free of sand and dust.

2. Evolved lava: On the main Syrtis, THEMIS found volcanoes and streams of dacites, chemically evolved lava that implies a complex volcanic history of Mars.

3. Gas jets spawn dark “spiders” and spots on Mars ‘ice sheet: Scientists are using THEMIS data to discover that sand-nozzle gas jets are the cause of the mysterious dark tracks that appear every spring on Mars’ southern polar cap.

4. Snowmelt of carved ravines: Water from snowmelt has eroded many geologically recent ravines on Mars – and snow is still lingering on many pole-facing slopes in mid-latitudes.

5. Olivine-rich rocks point to a cold, dry Martian past: In Syrtis Major, THEMIS mapped the largest known exposure to olivine-rich rocks on Mars. Because olivine decomposes easily when wet, its long-term survival suggests that Mars has been cold and dry for most of its history.

An odyssey for everyone

In addition to building and managing THEMIS, the ASU team has developed several tools for the scientific community and for scientific enthusiasts in its Mars spacecraft.

One of the most commonly used such tools is a geospatial information system (GIS) called Java remote sensing planning and analysis or JMARS for short. It has been publicly available since 2003, and was recently named one of the 25 largest Java applications ever written by Oracle. JMARS is used by thousands of people, providing mission planning and data analysis tools to NASA scientists, instrument team members, students and the general public

Not resting on their laurels, the Mars Space Flight Facility teamed up last year with assistant professor Robert LiKamW and graduate student Lauren Gold of Meteor Studios at ASU’s School of Art, Media and Engineering to launch a new smartphone app called JMARS AR Viewer. JMARS AR Viewer, which can be downloaded for free from Apple and Android stores, allows users to virtually project planetary terrain from Mars, Mercury, Earth and the Moon into their physical environment.

But the team’s contributions are not limited to the digital platform. ASU Mars scientist Jonathon Hill compiled 24,000 individual images taken by THEMIS to design a map of Mars the size of a basketball court. The map can be transferred to schools and events so that science lovers of all ages can “walk” Mars. The map even traveled to the National Mall in Washington, where visitors could walk the red planet, go on a geographic garbage hunt, and talk to scientists from Mars.

“Mars is a very dynamic and changeable place, so we hope that THEMIS and Odyssey will continue to observe the planet for many years to come,” Christensen said. “Research always has surprises, and even after 20 years we never really know what to expect from every picture we take.”

THEMIS was built and operated by ASU. The Odyssey gamma-ray spectrometer was provided by the University of Arizona, Tucson, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Russian Space Research Institute. The main contractor for the Odyssey project, Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, developed and built the orbiter. The mission operations are conducted jointly by Lockheed Martin and JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena.


About Arizona State University

Arizona State University has developed a new model for the American Research University, creating an institution dedicated to approach, excellence, and influence. ASU is measured by those it includes, not those it excludes. As a prototype of a New American university, ASU engages in research that contributes to the public good, and ASU takes primary responsibility for the economic, social, and cultural vitality of the communities that surround it.

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